“Mr. Cruise, come out of the closet”

chefThe voice of South Park‘s Chef, soul singer Isaac Hayes, has quit the show that centers on four foul-mouthed fourth graders. The reason: South Park inappropriately ridicules religion. Say what? Since when?!?

Here is a thorough account of the story from Reuters (my past posts dealing with Scientology can be found here and here):

Soul singer Isaac Hayes said on Monday he was quitting his job as the voice of the lusty character “Chef” on the satiric cable TV cartoon “South Park,” citing the show’s “inappropriate ridicule” of religion.

But series co-creator Matt Stone said the veteran recording artist was upset the show had recently lampooned the Church of Scientology, of which Hayes is an outspoken follower.

“In ten years and over 150 episodes of ‘South Park,’ Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslim[s], Mormons or Jews,” Stone said in a statement issued by the Comedy Central network. “He got a sudden case of religious sensitivity when it was his religion featured on the show.”

He added: “Of course we will release Isaac from his contract, and we wish him well.”

In a statement explaining his departure from the show, Hayes, 63, did not mention last fall’s episode poking fun at Scientology and some of its celebrity adherents, including actor Tom Cruise.

south park three boysAs blogger Andrew Sullivan joked, the episode “Red-Hot Catholic Love” wasn’t enough to drive Hayes from the show. Nor was the show that started it all, “The Spirit of Christmas (Jesus vs. Santa).”

The Scientology episode, which is available at South Park‘s homepage (for the time being) and through this site, is just as much about making fun of the alleged closeted homosexuality of actor Tom Cruise (who is also a Scientologist), but the plot certainly centers on Stan and his rather unusual experience in the group.

I’m glad Reuters and others have been quick to point out the hypocrisy of Hayes’ claiming that his departure was solely based on the show’s clear hostility toward religion. They obviously were helped out a bit by Stone’s statement, and it will be interesting to see if this story picks up any momentum. No lawsuit has been filed against the show that I know of, largely thanks to American judicial precedent that allows liberal use of satire, especially toward those who are in the public limelight.

While I certainly do not think it’s nice to mock another person’s religion, or life philosophy as Scientologists put it, and Scientology is indeed viciously mocked by South Park in this episode, it is certainly within the realm of comedy. As long as the comedy is actually funny, and in this case it’s hilarious, I’m OK with it.

One item that might be worth exploring in follow-up reports is the actual status of Scientology as a religion. Yes, Scientology has established tax-exempt status and walks like a religion, but it does not always talk like a religion. Scientologists have left comments on this blog that “many people practice Scientology and their chosen faith.” This includes Hayes, who says he is a Baptist by birth and that he considers Scientology an “applied religious philosophy.”

Perhaps the Internal Revenue Service needs to take another look at the group’s status as a religion?

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Supply and demand

PeopleSeemToLikeItI’ll never forget hearing how my best friend’s little sister frowned upon seeing their uncle arrive at a function in his chosen get-up of women’s clothing. “It’s not that you’re wearing a dress,” she said. “It’s the dress you’re wearing.”

That pretty much sums up my feelings about Contemporary Christian Music. It’s not, obviously, that I have any problem with the idea of new Christian music. Indeed, I have friends who have written beautiful hymns in the past few years. It’s just that most of what the genre turns out is such a horrible assault on the mind and ears. But in a culture that throws out Dürer woodcuts for PowerPoint sermons and Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” for “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” it appears I’m outnumbered by the legions of poor taste.

Which is why I smiled a bit when I read Sam Hodges’ piece Saturday in the Dallas Morning News. He found that some megachurches, which ceremoniously burnt their hymnals decades ago (I kid), are bringing them back:

A funny thing happened last summer at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall. A shipment of hymn books arrived, and not by mistake.

Lake Pointe is a megachurch with contemporary-style worship. Years back, it dissolved its choir and got rid of its hymnals in favor of Christian “praise” music, played by a rock band,with lyrics flashed on big screens. That style still dominates at Lake Pointe. But in August, sensing demand, the church debuted its “Classic Service,” an early Sunday morning alternative service with choir, piano, organ and lots of congregational singing — out of those shiny new hymnals.

I thought it was perceptive that Hodges characterized the church as responding to demand. It’s such an American way of doing worship. You want coffee? We’ll get you coffee! You have Attention Deficit Disorder? We’ll make sure to hop around on stage and shout a lot! You like Peter, Paul and Mary more than Isaac Watts? No problem — we’ll give you Contemporary Christian Music! Oh, now you miss Isaac Watts? Okay, we’ll bring him back! It’s not that Lake Pointe thought that doing traditional worship was the right thing to do — it’s just that they were responding to consumer demand.

On that note, it would be interesting to explore whether some of these big music companies behind Contemporary Christian Music were behind the hymnal these contemporary worship congregations are buying. I’m not trying to pick on them, even though my personal biases are beyond clear. And at least in these Protestant churches the worshipers actually seem to like the music offered. Unlike in Roman Catholic churches where, as Amy Welborn noted last month, parishioners around the country were subjected to a less-than-stellar praise song because it seemed to match the pericope.

But some students of the contemporary style say that much of its music lacks the melodic sophistication of enduring hymns, or the poetry and doctrinal depth of lyrics penned by such writers as Charles Wesley (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”), Isaac Watts (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”), Fanny Crosby (“Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine”) or Thomas Dorsey (“Precious Lord, Take My Hand”).

And while traditional worship can be stiff and uninvolving, the contemporary experience — music, big screens, mood lighting — is often derided as “church lite.”

“When done incorrectly, contemporary services are all foam and no root beer,” said Nathan Lino, Northeast Houston Baptist’s pastor. “They are entertaining, fun and high energy, but you leave with no sense of having had a meaningful time of worship. … I do think churches are beginning to realize that there is a growing desire for a shift back toward a more traditional style.”

I hope all the other drinkers loved Pastor Lino’s modification as much as I did. I think it’s also interesting — as the piece makes clear — that when these churches are bringing back traditional worship, they’re bringing back traditional Protestant worship from the very recent past. I mean, if we sang those hymns mentioned above at my church, the congregation would wonder if we were moving to contemporary worship.

Anyway, this piece is a great example of how to do local religion coverage. It’s not a puff piece, but just a great look into how decisions are made at the congregational level and what the ramifications of those decisions are. It also has a bunch of nice sidebars with further information. Good work.

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Bono’s “homily”

bonoI’m waiting for some smart person out there to dissect Bono’s sermon Thursday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast for its theological implications and political ramifications.

I somehow ended up at the event along with Bono and his red-tinted sunglasses. I was hoping against all hopes that President Bush or his wife Laura would ask to try them on. I sure wanted to. All I can say is that Bono is a rock star for a reason. He certainly knows how to capture an audience at a charge of nearly $100 a pop.

The event garnered little attention in The Washington Post: this Associated Press report was turned around into a Reliable Source note that included this quote and a “tithing” explainer:

If you’re wondering what I’m doing here, at a prayer breakfast, well, so am I. I’m certainly not here as a man of the cloth, unless that cloth is leather. It’s certainly not because I’m a rock star. Which leaves one possible explanation: I’m here because I’ve got a messianic complex.

It’s easy to cast doubt on Bono’s sincerity. Celebrities are easy to criticize for lacking genuine motivations. But what person that has reached an international stage other than Mother Teresa can claim genuine sincerity? Can any of us truly do a work of charity out of a pure heart? Bono certainly does not shy away from admitting that he is using his rock star status to get into important people’s faces about international problems (thanks to this website for providing a transcript:

Well, I’m the first to admit that there’s something unnatural … something unseemly … about rock stars mounting the pulpit and preaching at presidents, and then disappearing to their villas in the South of France. Talk about a fish out of water. It was weird enough when Jesse Helms showed up at a U2 concert … but this is really weird, isn’t it?

You know, one of the things I love about this country is its separation of church and state. Although I have to say: in inviting me here, both church and state have been separated from something else completely: their mind.

Mr. President, are you sure about this?

It’s very humbling and I will try to keep my homily brief. But be warned — I’m Irish.

I’d like to talk about the laws of man, here in this city where those laws are written. And I’d like to talk about higher laws. It would be great to assume that the one serves the other; that the laws of man serve these higher laws … but of course, they don’t always. And I presume that, in a sense, is why you’re here.

And with that, Bono launched into his “homily” on how the laws of the United States should be in line with what he believes are God’s laws: justice and equality. Last time I checked there were more like 10 laws and the concept of loving your neighbor. Bono said to do this the United States should tithe an additional one percent of the national budget towards international aid:

I was amazed when I first got to this country and I learned how much some churchgoers tithe. Up to ten percent of the family budget. Well, how does that compare the federal budget, the budget for the entire American family? How much of that goes to the poorest people in the world? Less than one percent.

Mr. President, Congress, people of faith, people of America: I want to suggest to you today that you see the flow of effective foreign assistance as tithing … Which, to be truly meaningful, will mean an additional one percent of the federal budget tithed to the poor.

Sounds nice, but 1 percent is something like $26 billion and what international aide organization is going to manage that type of cash? Certainly not the United Nations. Maybe Bono’s up to the challenge.

This speech wasn’t destined for the front pages. The Washington Times sent a reporter to the event and Christianity Today produced a thorough report.

But at an event that was purposefully interfaith for the first time in its history, the speech kept the audience that included senators, Congress members, ambassadors and foreign dignitaries spellbound. Bono provided the message with which everyone could resonate. And did anyone there remember a word President Bush said?

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When the messenger has a message

sufjanPitchfork is an online site with daily reviews, news and features about indie music. Chris Dahlen writes an interesting and well-written piece this week about why the indie music community has such trouble with Christian themes:

I don’t know why hipsters hate Jesus. I’m not here to explain how the guy behind the Sermon on the Mount turned into a symbol of our blue- and red-state divide, or to narrow down why it’s desperately unhip to admit you’re a Christian and then get on stage at a rock club. Almost no strain of music is as secular as indie rock: It’s quaint when old men on 78s sing spirituals, and a rugged legend like Johnny Cash can pray however he wants, but if you’re a scrawny songwriter with a 4-track, siding with Jesus makes you a leper.

Dahlen looks at Michael Nau, the voice behind Page France. Nau sings about Jesus and other religious themes in some of his music but doesn’t consider himself a Christian artist. This confuses both Christian and non-Christian listeners. Sufjan Stevens, whose album was one of the most critically acclaimed of last year, has the same trouble. Everyone loves him but many of his fans don’t know how to take his religious themes. Dahlen says this is silly:

But the shame here isn’t that people made the wrong assumptions about Page France, but that they would ever have dismissed him over his beliefs in the first place. Even a religious performer can convey doubt and conflict. Sure, the bands that rocked the Christian festival at your local speedway stick to celebration and sin, but consider the work of people who are described as “thinking Christians” — a term that’s about as patronizing as “intelligent dance music,” but let’s go with it for now. Take the quest for spirituality on Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, or the piety and humility of Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans, or to widen the circle, the furious morality of the abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or the scene in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me in which the reverend asks Mark Ruffalo’s drifter if he considers his life important. If we shun the religious content of these works, we’re missing their emotional and intellectual power.

You can disagree with the church of your choice, but to dismiss religion altogether — and to write off the best ideas, the best people and of course, the best indie rockers — that come out of it, seems pointless. Why shoot the messenger just because you’re scared he has a message?

This is a surprisingly open-minded piece from an unlikely source. It’s also a great idea for further study by reporters. Someone should even consider writing a book about pop culture and religion.

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Dang it, 10,000 people want to worship?

obj hands raised worship 150 tnTry to put yourself in the shoes of an assistant city editor down at the Washington Post.

It seems that you have about 10,000 people, per night, down at the District’s convention center, shouting and singing and carrying on and do who knows what all. That sounds like a story, perhaps with a photo essay on the side. The problem is that they are shouting and singing and praying and carrying on about, well, that Jesus guy. It’s called a “revival” and this is not something that shows up on the metro news budget all of the time.

The speakers and musicians appear to be world famous, but, dang it, they sure aren’t people you hear about all that often on National Public Radio, not even that T.D. Jakes man from the cover of Time. But it seems that thousands of people right here inside the Beltway seem to think that they’re important.

And it does seem that the people at this giant, multi-racial event were talking — at least some of the time — about a topic that appears on the news radar from time to time. That would be racial reconciliation.

Yet they seem to think that this should happen in church and not in a political convention. That’s a problem. What and editor supposed to do? If it was 10,000 people protesting the war, or watching basketball, or dancing to a hip-hop czar, the newspaper would know how to handle it. It it was 10,000 believers worried about the environment or mental health it would be on Page 1-A. You know it would.

Anyway, the Washington Post does have a highly skilled reporter who knows how to handle these tense situations and his name is Hamil Harris. He’s the kind of guy who knows as much about the economics of gospel music as he does about the crime statistics at the local morgue. He can chase 5-star pulpit superstars as easily as he can chase heavy-weight boxing champs who chomp on people’s ears. I must confess that Hamil is a friend of mine.

obj hands raised worship 150 tnThe man my students call “Hurricane Hamil” did manage to get a story about this gigantic urban revival into the Post this morning and this sounds like quite a scene. Here’s a sample and I am quite sure — although I haven’t talked to Harris about it — that the newspaper could have printed a whole lot more on this event. Who knows, maybe the people preached on other subjects that that are “newsworthy.”

After years of squeezing into the Upper Marlboro facility, the Rev. John K. Jenkins of First Baptist and Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr. of Greater Mount Calvary, which is in the District, decided to move the revival to the Convention Center this year to accommodate the growth and draw even more people from across the region.

“There was so much tragedy and so much pain in 2005, not just in this community but the nation,” Jenkins said, referring to the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. “Where else to start healing but in Washington, D.C.?”

Jakes, a popular television evangelist, unleashed a stormy sermon that challenged churches to go beyond the spiritual status quo in 2006.

“We are in the midst of a great war, and I am not talking about in Iraq,” Jakes boomed. “The church is intoxicated with its own wine . . . but sometimes we ought to get mad. The enemy is playing with us. . . . I’m tired of just going to church. I’m tired of just seeing folks. I want to see God. I want to see a movement of God.”

Dang it, there he went — dragging God into this. Don’t you hate it when preachers do that?

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Blessed be the ties that bind

bonohelmsOK, it’s just a little cute Associated Press story about the Alpha Male rock star hanging out with the once powerful arch-conservative U.S. senator.

Some would say that it doesn’t need to be taken all that seriously. But I have my reasons for wishing that Paul Nowell had done more with his recent “Bono Dines With Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms” report from Charlotte, N.C., that ran all over the place.

Here’s a chunk of the short text, which seems to think it is breaking news that these two men are friends:

Before U2 opened to a raucous crowd of 17,000 at the city’s new downtown arena, Bono had dinner with Helms.

“He (Bono) called us a couple of weeks ago and said he wanted to see his old friend the senator,” said John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center, who accompanied Helms and other family members to Monday’s meeting.

Since they were introduced several years ago, the Republican Helms and Bono have become close allies in the fight against the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Helms, who is 84 and suffers from a number of serious health problems, arrived backstage before the show and was joined by Bono for a casual meal. On the menu: grilled chicken, roast beef and salmon. “It was nothing fancy,” Dodd said. “They ate in the cafeteria with the roadies and the rest of the crew.”

Now, to be fair, it is possible that Nowell had zero access to Bono or the senator and, thus, he was not really able to talk about what pulled them together for this meeting or, of course, what they talked about. Note, however, the assumption that the main tie that binds them is political. This is the font of all life, of course, in the worldview of many or most mainstream reporters.

But I suspect that politics, or even foreign affairs, was not the main topic of discussion. I suspect this because (a) that is not really what knit the two together in the first place and (b) Helms is in bad health and it seems that Bono may have wanted to lend him comfort and friendly support — even though Helms is no longer one of the principalities and powers inside the D.C. Beltway.

Having listened in on at least one short chat between these men — click here for details — I can tell you that they probably talked about faith, compassion and love. It would have been interesting to see what the senator’s spokesperson would have said if Nowell had asked a simple question: Did Bono and Helms spend some time in prayer?

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Sing a new song

Journalists have trouble covering “normality” and everyday events in religious life, Terry noted yesterday. While news organizations tend to cover religious perspectives on contentious issues, denominational infighting, and the latest clerical scandals, the real action for the average devotee is in worship, prayer, personal piety and, if we’re being honest, coffee hours.

David Crumm, a prolific and longtime religion writer and columnist at the Detroit Free Press, breaks this mold with a substantive look at how faith inspires art. Using an unlikely subject, he manages to get a newsworthy story out of the ordinary life of the church:

One evening as his mom was fixing supper in their Bloomfield Hills home, 11-year-old Harrison Kenum laid aside his Lego construction sets and Star Wars games and launched an unusual new mission.

In the next 30 minutes, he wrote a remarkable hymn that will be sung at a 9 a.m. Dec. 11 service at Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Hills.

It would be easy to write this as a novelty story. The elements are all there: precocious kid, seasonal schmaltz, feel-good religiosity. But Crumm does not condescend to his pre-teen subject — or his audience — and permits Kenum to explain the creative process and religious influences that fueled his hymnwriting:

At the core of this effort is his vivid Christian faith in which he says he clearly senses God sitting in the heavens and ruling with a compassionate hand.

To capture that lofty image in verse, Harrison found himself calling upon a host of traditional religious words that have swirled around in his head during the seven years he has performed in boys’ choirs.

“To make it sound like it should, I knew that I had to put in ‘doth’ and ‘ne’er’ and some other words like that,” he said. “To sound right, hymns like this always need a ‘thy’ or two.”

Also commendable is how many resources Crumm and his colleagues devoted to the piece; it’s more of a news package than a story. On the website, at least, the article is accompanied by the lyrics and audio to the hymn, pictures, and a video interview of Kenum explaining his vision. The 11-year-old definitely has a theology he used to write the hymn and Crumm highlights it and puts it in the context of congregational life. The writer even understands that the liturgical season most Christians are in right now is Advent, not the High Holy Days of Commercialized Christmas. Crumm explains how the Magnificat — the song Mary sings upon hearing she will bear the Savior — will be one of the appointed readings for the congregation’s upcoming Advent service:

“This is the season of Advent for us and that’s the theme on Sunday in the service where we’ll sing Harrison’s hymn: Everyone’s got a song to sing,” [assistant pastor Rev. Lana] Russell told me.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone took time like he did to think about these things? I want people to ask: What’s the song that I’ve been waiting to sing?”

Eleven-year old hymnwriters might not exist in every area, but editors and religion writers would do well to look at how faith and religious devotion affect every vocation, from mothers and barkeepers to janitors and soldiers. Real life, real news, and all that.

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Faith in that redneck music

rednecks 265x397As the old saying goes, the secret to country music’s appeal is that it can deal with what happens on Sunday morning as well as Saturday night.

Or, as Naomi Judd once told me, if you’re going to write songs about sinning, it helps to have some listeners to still think that sin exists. You don’t hear many cheating songs on MTV because cheating songs imply that there is something holy called marriage to cheat against.

The religious side of country music — this is not a “ghost,” because it’s right out there in the open — is one of the subplots in my friend Chris Willman’s new book entitled “Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music.” He is one of the senior music writers at Entertainment Weekly and when it comes to the smart side of popular music, he has been there and done that for, well, ages and ages.

By all means, rush out and buy the book. But if you want to sample it for free, the Dallas Morning News recently featured a chunk of it in its Sunday Points magazine. Here is one section that I found especially interesting, in a GetReligion-ish sort of way. Why is country music the true “folk music” of the modern American mainstream?

… (Consider) the varying musical responses to 9-11. In the world of rock, Paul McCartney, one of the great songwriters of the 20th century, delivered a spirited new anthem called “Freedom.” It really did unite a wounded nation, if only in unanimous declaration that this was the suckiest composition of his storied career.

Neil Young might have seemed better equipped for such a topical task. Three decades earlier, the mercurial rocker had written a song about “four dead in Ohio” and released it within two weeks of the actual event. But 45 dead in Pennsylvania seemed to vex him. “Let’s Roll,” a tribute to the heroic passengers who fought with terrorists on doomed Flight 93, was well-intentioned, yet curiously unmoving.

So who did step up to the contemplative plate and become America’s poet laureate at the end of 2001? A guy whose last single was “It’s Alright to Be a Redneck”: hat act Alan Jackson, whose reflective “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” caught the attention of even a lot of non-country fans, who whispered to themselves: Out of the mouths of rubes …

You remember that song, don’t you? That’s the one that had a chorus that would have turned an MTV programmer into a pillar of salt. Let’s see, it went something like this:

“I’m just a singer of simple songs. I’m not a real political man. I watch CNN, but I’m not really sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran. But I know Jesus and I talk to God and I remember this from when I was young. Faith, hope and love are some good things he gave us, and the greatest of these is love.”

And all the people said: Amen.

You know, I think that Johnny Cash guy understood this stuff, too. Somebody ought to make a movie about that.

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